Lisu New Year, enacting ethnic culture in the mountains

Lisu New Year

Lisu New Year in Doi Chang, Mae Suai district, Chiang Rai.

Of all the festivities in Northern Thailand, the celebration of the traditional New Year in the mountain villages of the Lisu people is certainly one of the most vibrant and colourful. The four days and nights during which the Lisu indulge in dancing, singing and drinking coincide with Chinese New Year as the somewhat sinicized Lisu still adhere to the Chinese lunar calendar — usually at the end of January or in the first half of February. For them, the celebrations are more than just about having fun; they are the ultimate expression of their cultural identity.

Visiting a Lisu village during New Year is a rewarding experience, as outsiders are warmly welcomed to the festivities, while the crowds of dancing villagers dressed up in their most elaborately decorated costumes are a photographer’s delight. Although many remote Lisu villages can only be reached by a dusty and bumpy ride on a dirt road, at least a dozen are situated along a major asphalt-surfaced road and so are relatively easy to get to.

Along with numerous other mountain peoples, the Lisu from China’s Yunnan province started to cross into Burma during the tumultuous second half of the nineteenth century. During the 1910s, the first groups began to settle in Thai territory — Doi Chang in Chiang Rai province is thought to have been the kingdom’s first Lisu village. From then on, more Lisu migrants followed, so their settlements are now scattered throughout the northern parts of Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai en Chiang Rai provinces. Major clusters are in Mae Hong Son’s Pai district and Chiang Mai’s Wiang Haeng and Chiang Dao districts, but a number of villages are as far south as in Kamphaeng Phet and Phetchabun provinces.

In some of the ancient Chinese sources, the Lisu are singled out as the wildest of all the barbarians in the south. They were described as roaming through  remote mountain areas where the men hunted with their cross-bows, while the women collected roots and other edibles. But according to gazetteers from the seventeenth century, most Lisu had by then become agriculturists for at least part of the year, while many had even settled as wet rice cultivators near major centres, such as Lijiang and Dali.

During their southern exodus into Burma and Thailand, they cleared fields in the highland forests and subsequently grew crops, such as maize (sweet corn) and rice. When the soil became depleted, they moved along into new, virgin forest regions. In a number of British colonial reports the destructive environmetal impact of their activities was emphasized. For instance, it was reported of the 1,350 Lisu who had moved into Burma’s ‘Ruby Mines District’, some 100 kilometres north of Mandalay: ‘They settled on the Bernardmyo Plateau, coming from Chinese territory. According to their usual custom, they selected the highest summits for their wasteful energies and, before their activities were stopped by the formation of Forest Reserves, they had cleared a large portion of virgin forest and left it a mere treeless savannah of coarse grass.’ Poppy cultivation is not mentioned in this report from 1914, but for many Lisu, both in Burma and Thailand, poppies would become their major cash crop, especially in the years following Word War II.

Lisu New Year

New Year in the Lisu village of Pa Bong Ngam, Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai. Left: A mother checks the new headresses she made for her daughters. Right: Young girls in their brand new splendid dresses take position in the circle of dancing villagers.

In the early 1980s, when Thai government, army and paramilitary organizations lauched a war against the production of opium, the households in most Lisu villages were dependent on raw opium as their main cash crop. Consequently, the confiscation of their harvest and the destruction of flowering poppy fields had a highly deleterious impact upon their life. Their experiences with growing alternative crops were sometimes almost as traumatic, since they often resulted in failures and bankruptcies. What’s more, the construction of new mountain roads and the upgrading of the dirt tracks to their villages contributed to the many changes taking place in Lisu life. By the 1990s, many young Lisu men and women were employed in the lowland cities during much of the year, and such migrant labour is now part and parcel of the Lisu economy. Additionally, much of the forest surrounding the villages — that traditionally had helped nourishing these people — has disappeared. Yet despite all this, Lisu culture is alive and well, and there is no better evidence of it than Lisu New Year, when virtually all highlanders employed in the lowlands return to their villages for the lively celebrations.

Lisu New Year

Villagers of Mae Tae, Wiang Haeng district, Chiang Mai, dance on the tunes of a man playing the falu. A bamboo pole and young pine tree are planted in front of the house and a corn cob is attached to them.

The preparations for the festivities take place well in advance. Most households will ensure they have a stock of liquor at home, beginning to distil it as soon as they have harvested their corn and rice after the rainy season. Over many weeks, even months before the New Year, the women will be engaged in making new, eye-catching costumes that will be at centre stage during the New Year festivities. Women working on their sewing machines in front of their huts are a characteristic feature of any modern Lisu village in Thailand.

In the past, much of the colourful fabrics for these costumes was woven at home, but nowadays virtually all is bought in town. In December or early January, you may spot many Lisu women in the textile shops near Chiang Mai’s Worarot Market choosing a selection of the most colourful fabrics on offer there during the clearance sales. Some three decades or so ago, this was the time when most of them had just harvested and sold their opium, and consequently, much of the income from their cash crop was invested directly in the New Year’s celebrations.

As anthropologist Otome Hutheesing emphasized in her study of a village in Chiang Rai province, Lisu society has many aspects of a “reputocracy”. Gaining myi do (repute, merit) and displaying it are a major motivation in much of their social behaviour. Hard work and the production of a rich harvest is seen as reputable, and investing and presenting the fruits of them — by offering plenty of liquor and the display of many, vividly coloured  new costumes — is seen as equally so. As Lisu dancing is an old cultural tradition, taking part in it as much as possible during the celebrations is also considered an act of gaining repute. As the anthropologist writes: ‘The village dancing-grounds during New Year become stages on which Lisu custom is enacted. When Lisu dance around the New Year tree, the elders sing of repute and of wealth which is the result of the last year’s labour. A New Year song tells us “our village has repute” which means that the young men have earned sufficient cash to buy a bride…Each Lisu during that time of the year is involved in making the site reputable.’

The traditional female dress is a composition of two or three bright, contrasting colours, such as blue, magenta and orange, but also perhaps with different peaces of cloth with floral or other patterns included. It is worn over black, velvet pants. These dresses have become more and more elaborate through the addition of many coloured appliqué strips of cloth at the border of the yoke. Though rather variable, the effect is always distinctively Lisu. Many women also wear these costumes when working in their fields or even visiting the markets in the lowlands. Add to this costume a massive silver necklace, along with some other ornaments, and above all, a most elaborate head dress, and you will get the complete outfit of a marriagable girl, ready for display at the New Year’s celebrations.

The men wear their characteristic velvet baggy pants, usually in bright shades of blue or green for the young men, and a paler shade for their elders. Some will also wear their black velvet jackets studded with silver ornaments. Except for special occasions, such as the New Year, one will rarely, if ever, see men wearing these jackets.

Lisu New Year

Left: A man is playing the falu in the middle of the dancing villagers of Mae Tae. Right: An expert in playing the tzeebu is having a rest during the New Year celebrations in the Lisu village of Heko, Mae Chan district, Chiang Rai.

The dancing invariably consists of men and women holding hands and forming a circle. The music is provided by a man playing either a tzeebu, or a falu. The former is a kind of banjo with a wooden sound box and three stings, its sound board originally covered with a stretched python skin. The latter is a sort of pan pipe, usually one with a dried gourd in the middle. While playing their instrument, these musicians dance within the circle. ‘After a while, I get into a trance-like state,’ one expert player confessed.

‘The rhythm of the tune, the regular stamping of the feet is like a drug.’ Sometimes, circles consisting of dozens of dancers might break up and start spiralling. Especially characteristic during the dance — and fun for the dancers — is the stamping of the feet. ‘Like thunder is this dancing…New Year has entered with our dance,’ says one of the songs. The dances appear to be very simple, but, in fact, there are many varieties, a different dance for each tune, a real challenge for visitors invited to jopin in. While dancing and gaining repute, in Lisu belief the bad luck from the past year is swept away, so people can look forward to a fruitful new year.

Each day of the festivities, the dancing site shifts to a new location. Usually, it is in front of the house of a man of high repute, such as the village headman or an affluent villager.

Lisu New Year

New Year celebrations in the Lisu section of the village of Doi Chang, Mae Suai district, Chiang Rai. Left: The host of the party during one of the festive days is offering liquor to the dancers. Right: He has prepared plenty of food and all villagers and visitors are invited to have a tasty meal at his place.

The host will offer a rich meal to the villagers, for which a pig may be slaughtered early in the morning.  Not less important is to offer everyone at the party a cup of rice or corn liquor. A member of the host family may be constantly present in the circle to hand out new drinks to the dancers. Normally, signs of intoxication become all too clear around noon. The Lisu have the reputation of drinking spirits lavishly, and the Chinese already expressed that in a proverb: ‘The Lisu for liquor, leeches for blood.’  The dancing site will gradually also become something like a courting ground, and many youngsters will take part more and more enthusiastically during the evening and on into the night.

Of course, the festival has far more aspects than just the ‘Three Ds’ (dancing, drinking, and detoxification), as there is also more than just water fun during the Thai New Year (Songkran)  in April. It is also the time when the Lisu ‘spring clean’ their homes, as the Thai do during Songkran. More important, however, is the generous way in which they show respect to their ancestor spirits. Even though Christian Lisu families live in many villages, most Lisu are ‘animists’.

Lisu New Year

(left): Lisu boys praying in a shrine in their village, Pa Bong Ngam, Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai. (centre): An ancestor shrine outside the Lisu village Nam Hu, Pai district, Mae Hong Son. (right): Offerings along the road near the Lisu village of Lao Wu, Wiang Haeng district, Chiang Mai.

Of all the spirits, apomo, or Old Grandfather, is revered most of all. Apomo is the guardian spirit of the community who safeguards its morals. His spirit house is usually a little above the village. One morning during the New Year the men will go there to offer a tray with food and flowers. Although the offerings may be prepared by the women, the ceremony is exclusively a male affair. The whole compound of the spirit house is fenced off and is strictly taboo for women to enter, as a precaution against pollution of the sacred site by menstruating women.

Once, I went along with a party of men bringing honour to Old Grandfather. At dawn we started to climb to the shrine, where on a simple altar a display of  ceramic cups represents the different clans living in the village. After prayers and the offerings of the contents of the trays, hundreds of fire crackers were let off. Even louder noise was produced with Lisu-style ‘Molotov cocktails’, made from a bamboo tube filled with explosive powder. Other young men repeatedly loaded the long barrels of their guns with blank shots to fire into the sky. The bottles of liquor, of which Old Grandfather had already imbibed the ‘essence’, were gradually emptied into the china cups some men had brought with them. Meanwhile, a fire had been lit to roast the pork. An hour, or maybe two hours later, the party came to an end, and we staggered and stumbled back down into the village. I skipped breakfast, as I was already gorged on hunks of half-raw pork and rind, dusted with the ash from the fire, now floating in my stomach in a fifty percent solution of alcohol.

Lisu New Year

During the months following the New Year celebrations, the Lisu start clearing their fields in preparation of planting the corn and rice, which they will do as soon as the rains begin to fall. Left: A woman from Pa Bong Ngam is burning weeds and the dried stalks of the corn plants harvested a few months earlier. Right: Women from Lao Wu working in their fields.

Another ceremony is staged in the home of the shaman on New Year’s eve. Then, all the villagers are blessed when the shaman recites ritual formulae and sprays the guests with water (or was it also liquor?) from his mouth. Following this ceremony, the villagers, most of them young men, sample the liquor offered to them at every home they visit. After dancing for a few minutes around a ‘tree’, set up for this occasion centrally in each compound, they use to move on to another home. Twice, I was invited to share this activity, but, reputable as it may be, in neither case could I complete the full circuit through the village. The next day, I needed a lot of Tiffy (asperin) and strong coffee to enable me to join in again with the celebrations, but at least I could say that I had taken part.

©Sjon Hauser: text and pictures.